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Exercise and the brain with Dr. Kelly McGonigal

On this episode of the Braincare podcast, Dr. Kelly McGonigal shares her expert insight on exercise and the brain.

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April 27, 2021
4 min read

Dr. Kelly McGonigal wants to give you an intravenous dose of hope. The pioneering health psychologist, Stanford lecturer, and serial best-selling author is back on the Braincare podcast to share her radical thoughts on how movement affects the brain.

Today, Kelly gets us hopped up on endorphins as we discuss the endless positives of exercise. She explains how exercise can make our brains both more flexible and more resilient, why myokines are the most important proteins you've probably never heard of, and how you can use your body to engage with life.

You can listen to the episode here.

Article breakdown

Your brain on exercise 

You’ve probably heard the phrase ‘your brain is like a muscle’. While this comparison is technically inaccurate, it’s true in that just like the muscles in your body, you need to exercise your brain to keep it in tip-top shape. 

Your brain, muscles, and heart all need time to adapt to movement in ways that will make it more enjoyable, meaningful, and easier. Unless you’ve dedicated six weeks to movement, you cannot know whether or not you love to exercise. Don’t give up—give yourself a chance, and keep moving. 

If you want to fall in love with movement, you have to give up your cynicism. 

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The benefits of physical exercise

Let’s talk benefits: exercise changes your brain in ways that make you more resilient to stress, trauma, depression, anxiety, and age-related changes like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and cognitive decline. 

Exercise not only triggers the release of feel-good chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and endorphins, but it also impacts the structure of your brain, making you more sensitive to joy, pleasure, and positive motivation. You know that your body will change with exercise—if you lift heavy things, you’ll get stronger. The same goes for your brain—if you train it, it will get better at being alive, thinking better, learning faster, being social, and keeping you motivated. 

Physical exercise can be a powerful antidote to the modern epidemics of depression, anxiety, and loneliness.

Movement for anxiety and depression 

What benefits your body, also benefits your mind. Exercise is one of the most effective ways to improve your mental health—especially if you do it outside. 

New emerging research suggests the ‘green exercise’ effect—being active in a natural environment—brings positive effects such as healthier levels of blood pressure and cortisol, vitality, increased energy, psychological restoration, well-being, and positivity. Exercise forces mindfulness that your brain needs to shut down the cruel, verbal aspects of anxiety and depression.

Every time we move our muscles, we are giving ourselves an intravenous dose of hope. 

The power of hope molecules

Think of your muscles as pharmacies—they manufacture and store chemicals, and only release them into your bloodstream when you move. These ‘hope molecules’ are proteins called myokines, and they’re produced by all of your muscles. Whether you walk, run, or lift weights, every time one of your muscles contracts, these proteins are secreted into your bloodstream. 

It’s that simple, and what’s better is that they’re good for every aspect of your wellbeing; they boost your immune system, improve heart health, regulate blood sugar, and can even kill cancer cells. Myokines also cross the blood-brain barrier and reach your brain, where they act as little antidepressant molecules. 

These ‘hope molecules’ are put into motion by movement—it all works as long as you’re using muscles. You’re capable of doing this, so move whatever part of your body you want, in whatever way you want to move it so you can start benefiting from this process. 

Dr. Kelly’s movement tips for stress 

  • Grab a friend and exercise outside. Working out with other people—particularly in nature—are two adjustments you can make to amplify the mental health benefits of movement. Also, moving with other people creates collective joy, and an increased sense of belonging and community. It leaves you feeling connected to others and sets you up to deal with any incoming stress. 

  • Move at a moderate intensity for at least 20 minutes. This will allow you to feel that exercise ‘high’ brought on by increased levels of dopamine, adrenaline, and endorphins.

  • You don’t have to do a 30-minute HIIT workout to reap the benefits of physical exercise—a simple 10-minute walk will do. Although fitness culture tells us otherwise, exercise is not all about losing weight or achieving a certain health status; according to Dr. Kelly, as long as you’re ‘using your body to engage with life’, you’re on the right track. 

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